We should be grateful that Clement Moore lived in the 19th century when certain language was not to be uttered in impolite company not to speak of polite company. Coarse, vulgar, obscene language has become the norm by which our society expresses itself.
Grumpy Old Teacher wasn’t really using–um–strong language in the title. The J key is broken on his keyboard. Yep, GOT is going with that and will stick to it even as he hunts for the naughty wink emoji.
But when the New York Times published an article about a school district in Pennsylvania that disciplined a 9th-grade adolescent for expressing her disappointment about being relegated to the cheerleading junior varsity squad with a Snapchat post that dropped the F-bomb with school, cheer, softball, and everything, it brought to mind these famous lines and how they might be rewritten today:
“Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen! On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!(A Visit from Saint Nicholas, Clement Clarke Moore.)
The issue is the First Amendment, outdated precedents regarding how protected student speech is, differing rulings by Courts of Appeal, and the need for the Supreme Court to sort it out.
Given our times of social media, cyberbullying, threats of school violence, sexting, and the resulting mental health issues that include a disturbing increase in suicide, school systems need to monitor what children say when they are not on campus. Many threats of violence are detected over the weekend via social media monitoring and headed off before Monday. Cyberbullying is a serious problem and, like everything else that involves the safety and welfare of children, we look to our schools as the government agency to take care of it.
However, given the nature of adolescence, the late development of the cerebral cortex that checks impulses, it is often the case that teenagers will express themselves inappropriately in moments of anguish, despair, or upset. It is the adults who need to have the maturity to sort out real threats from the hyperbolic “I’m going to kill him/her!” that we all have uttered at least once in our lifetimes.
Often, adolescent angst, high moments of extreme passion, and other normal developmental events pass soon after the triggering event. Far too often, it is the overreaction of adults that takes a minor concern and escalates it into a major crisis.
In this case, the disappointment of a 9th-grader resulted in a moment of exclamation that used obscene language. She issued no threats, she bullied no one, she sent no inappropriate pictures. Does the language justify school discipline?
GOT says no. While students may have curtailed First Amendment speech rights, they do not lack them entirely. Schools may regulate and suppress speech that would cause a disruption to learning and speech that involves lewdness. But let’s be real. In our society today, dropping an eff bomb is not lewd speech. The word has taken on a great number of meanings, including the sense of “I’m done with this.”
That’s all this student did. She expressed her disappointment and, in the moment, said she was done. She didn’t care anymore. That speech ought to be protected even if most of the time it is ephemeral and dissolves in the fresh breeze of a new day.
In moments like this, in his classroom or in the hallway, GOT has had moments of temporary deafness. When another student says to him, “Did you hear that?!” GOT responds, “Sorry, I was thinking about something else and I missed it.”
GOT does not tolerate inappropriate language in his classroom, but the heavy hand of school discipline is not the way to handle infractions. Once, a student tossed a comment about someone’s effing jacket. GOT response: “I didn’t know clothing could do that.” After the student thought about it, he laughed. “You’re right.”
Standard of behavior reinforced. No discipline needed.
Are you listening, Mahanoy Area School District (Pennsylvania?)